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Guest Opinion

The landings, the beaches, the commanders...the longest day


As we reach the 80th anniversary of the landings at Normandy, it is proper to pause and give remembrance to all our fighting men and women from all our conflicts.

These words were spoken by General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces:

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of The Allied Expeditionary Force, you are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

The proposed invasion was planned under the name of “Operation Overlord,” which was chosen by Winston Churchill. In the Pacific Theater there were several “D” days where we landed on enemy-held islands. Suffice it to say many simply maintain “D” Day stands for the invasion of enemy-held Europe-June 6, 1944.

Much planning went into where the Allies would land. The invasion force was assembled to be launched from Britain. The obvious choice was France’s Pas de Calais region. This was 150 miles northeast of Normandy and the closest site to Great Britain across the English Channel. Great lengths were employed to make the Germans believe it was to be Pas de Calais. A fictitious army group was set up — FUSAG.

First U.S. Army Group was supposedly commanded by Gen. George Patton. Phony radio traffic took place discussing Pas de Calais, knowing it would be picked up by the Germans. Making it convincing was the fact the Germans considered Patton to be the Allies’ best-fighting general. Logically, he had to be part of it.

Patton had previously been reprimanded for slapping a soldier in Italy for cowardice and was left without a command.

What faced the Allies in their attempt to free German-occupied Europe?

It was the “Atlantic Wall.” This was a series of coastal defenses that ran from continental Europe to Scandinavia — some 2,000 miles.

It consisted of gun emplacements and other defensive fortifications that used 18 million tons of concrete. It was largely designed by Hitler.

The Allied invasion on the Normandy coast stretched along an 80-mile front.

In charge of the German Normandy defenses was Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, best known as the “Desert Fox” for his leadership of the Afrika Korps in the battles with the British in North Africa.

The Germans abandoned North Africa largely due to a shortage of men, fuel and equipment. These had to be brought in by ship across the Mediterranean Sea, which was largely controlled by the British.

In 1944, Rommel inspected the defenses and found them to be inadequate.

He wrote: “The war will be won or lost on the beaches. …We will have only one chance to stop the enemy and that is while he is in the water…The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive for the Allies and for Germany. It will be the longest day.”

Rommel began to strengthen the defenses. Heavier, sturdier obstacles were constructed on the beaches. Poles and steel beams were planted in the sand. These would be topped with mines so landing craft would explode them when sailing over them to get to the beaches. Long wooden poles were planted in open fields to obstruct gliders carrying airborne troops from landing. These were called “Rommel Asparagus” by the Allies.

U.S. Navy Commander Edward Ellsberg said, “Rommel had thoroughly muddled our plans. Attacking at high tide as we had intended, we’d never get enough troops in over those obstacles...”

Rather, the Allies chose to land at low tide. This increased the length of the beach to be crossed under fire. But at low tide the beach obstacles could be seen and, hopefully, avoided.

Three separate armed elements were to land: Americans, British, and Canadians. The Normandy beaches were divided into five sectors. Looking down left to right we have the Americans at Utah and Omaha, British at Gold, Canadians at Juno, and the British last again at Sword. Seven battleships were present to provide bombardment support including USS Nevada, a Pearl Harbor survivor.

The landings required many technical advances. The landing craft used to get the troops on the beach was the Higgins boat, a shallow draft flat-bottom boat designed before the war by Andrew Jackson Higgins for use in the shallow Louisiana bayous.

A front drop gate was added. Eisenhower said this was one weapon that was vital to winning the war.

The landing at Normandy was the greatest amphibious invasion in history. The assault involved 185,000 troops, 18,000 paratroopers, 13,000 aircraft, 745 large ships, and over 300 minesweepers. The initial landings comprised some 50,000 men. The heaviest fighting took place at Omaha Beach. But, by the end of the day, the Allies were ashore and prepared to advance inland. The invasion, which the Germans had anticipated and feared, was accomplished. Thus, ended “the longest day.”

Much fierce fighting lay ahead but the end goal could be foreseen — the destruction of Nazi Germany.

Eisenhower went on to become the 34th President of the United States. Rommel committed suicide because Hitler believed him to be involved in the failed July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate him.

Frank Peiffer lives in Bedminster.

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